Clinton and Sanders owe veterans an honest conversation

The next commander-in-chief will command the brave men and women in our armed forces, but they’ll also be responsible for preserving the well-being of veterans who have sacrificed for our country. Reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) so that this critical institution puts veterans’ interests first is an important part of that task.

Unfortunately, the leading Democratic candidates—Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton email headache is about to get worse Asian, Pacific Islander lawmakers to endorse Clinton Feds fight to prevent Clinton deposition in email case MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders mocks ‘tough guy’ Trump for changing mind on debate Clinton email headache is about to get worse WATCH LIVE: Trump holds Calif. rally after backing out of Sanders debate MORE (I-Vt.)—spent a debate earlier this month avoiding discussion of meaningful change for this failing federal agency. Rather than focus on the issues, they denigrated and misrepresented my organization and other supporters of reforming the VA, saying we in effect advocated privatizing the VA.

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That’s completely untrue. In fact, we drafted a comprehensive, bipartisan VA reform proposal early last year, working alongside healthcare experts and legislators from both sides of the aisle, including former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and former Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.). Our mission was finding a means of preserving the VA and putting it on the road to long-term sustainability.

We called our final recommendation the Veterans Independence Act. This proposal preserves the VA integrated medical system, giving it the flexibility to compete with the private sector while expanding health care choice to all veterans. All these reforms are consistent with putting the veterans—not bureaucrats--at the center of the VA decision making.

Even the most cursory look at the state of the VA shows how badly it needs reform. Wait times for VA healthcare have grown 50 percent since the secret wait-list scandal broke in 2014. The VA Choice Card, created in response to the wait list scandal, has met with widespread confusion and underutilization by veterans. Even the world-class care that many veterans do indeed receive is deteriorating, as medical errors in VA clinics have grown 7 percent over recent years.

Combined with rampant headlines about negligence, wrongdoing, and unprofessional behavior on the part of VA employees, it’s clear the VA needs drastic change.

So how do we fix this? The recommendations of the Veterans Independence Act are a great place to start.

First, the VA must ensure every veteran can choose where they receive their care. It’s not enough that many veterans—especially those with service-connected injuries—get excellent treatment from VA doctors. That excellence must be consistent across the board. When veterans aren’t satisfied with VA care, they should have an option to use their benefits in the private sector. The G.I. Bill doesn’t require us to go to a VA-run university, so why should our critical health-care decisions be bound by such rules? Veterans deserve control over how their health-care dollars are spent.

Second, the VA’s integrated medical system should be transformed into a government-chartered nonprofit corporation to free it from bureaucratic rules that currently constrain innovation and adaptability. VA hospital and clinic administrators need to be able to make decisions and allocate resources according to their patients’ needs—not agency and political priorities. The massive VA bureaucracy currently hinders that, making its health care function more like a DMV than a Mayo Clinic. VA health-care centers must be able to better compete to earn veterans’ trust.

Speaking of trust, veterans must know they can trust all VA employees. The VA is almost completely devoid of any sort of accountability for misconduct or incompetence. As a result, veterans too often encounter the kind of wrongdoing that wouldn’t be tolerated at most private health-care providers.

The VA must instill a culture of accountability for wrongdoing and ensure professionalism is upheld. Even in the aftermath of the 2014 scandal, when wrongdoing was proven to be widespread across the VA health-care system, it’s likely that fewer than a half dozen employees were fired for misconduct. That’s far from the VA leadership’s promise to clean house.

Consistent with putting veterans first, the VA must enact policies allowing senior officials to act in a timely manner to replace employees who are found guilty of misconduct. It must also strengthen its whistleblower protections, so that those who do the right thing are not punished for it, as they often are in the VA today.

These are the kind of significant reforms the VA needs. Yet based on their statements at the most recent debate as well as other comments in recent months, we can’t count on either Clinton or Sanders to properly address this critical issue.

Even as headlines continued last year about widespread problems at the VA, Clinton claimed problems at the VA were “not widespread.” Meanwhile, as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sanders’ leadership at the height of the 2014 wait-list scandal was widely deemed ineffectual. He put the VA before the veterans, believing the widespread complaints, horror stories, and media coverage around the scandal were just part of a “concerted effort to undermine the V.A.” His committee held only seven hearings on the scandal, compared to over 40 in the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. 

If we hope to have an honest conversation about veterans’ health-care in America, it’s important that all participants approach this issue with an open mind, and without ideological blinders. There are bipartisan reform proposals that  address the need for the Department of Veterans Affairs to put veterans first, and then there’s Clinton’s and Sander’s emphasis on scaremongering over substance. America’s heroes deserve better than the latter.

Caldwell is the vice president for political and legislative action of Concerned Veterans for America. A U.S Marine infantry veteran, he served in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division.

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